Understanding Some Concepts of Conflict

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By Rajkumar Bobichand

Concepts of Conflict

In fact, conflict can be constructive and can be used creatively, in many instances; it is fundamental to social change.

Conflict is generally misunderstood even by public leaders. Conflict is an inseparable part of life and its social interactions. It is inseparably and continuously present in human relationships, dynamic society, and fabric of these relationships is constantly adapting and changing. As conflicts do not emerge in an empty space, they are products and manifestations of social, political and economic structures and systems; and character of society of which attitude, behaviour; and civil society, history, culture; governance and development are integral parts. Conflict is the life of society, and makes progress, change and development of the society. Conflict must not be considered as negative and it must be constructively used.

As Fisher et al. (2000) describe, conflict is a relationship between two or more parties (individuals or groups) who have, or think they have, incompatible goals. Conflicts arise from imbalances in all human relations – social relations, economic relations and power relations – leading to problems such as discrimination, unemployment, poverty, oppression, and crime.

Conflicts grow out of an interaction between the basic elements – Issues and opportunities; Attitudes and Behaviours – which form the raw material for any specific conflict relationship. Once conflicts have emerged, they develop dynamically and become a system that changes over time. Almost all conflicts move through periods of ‘heating up’ and ‘cooling down’ in their intensity. This cycle is a dynamic response to the actions and reactions of the parties.

Conflict may also be considered as an element of struggle, strife, or collision. The struggle for mutually exclusive rewards or the use of incompatible means to a goal is involved in a conflict. On the other hand, competition over scarce resources is at the heart of all social relationships. Competition rather than consensus is characteristic of human relationships. Structural inequalities lead individual or groups that benefit from a particular structure to struggle or strive to see it maintained. Horowitz (1985) mentioned, “Conflict is a struggle in which the aim is to gain objectives and simultaneously to neutralise, injure, or eliminate rivals. This leaves the nature and incompatibility of objectives and methods open to investigation rather than closed by definitional flat. Conflict is ubiquitous and occurs at the individual, community, institutional, national and levels. Many conflicts are localised and expressed nonviolently.”

Coser (1956) analyses conflict in terms of interactive processes and depicts conflict as “a form of socialisation.” No group can be entirely harmonious, for then it would lack process and structure. Group formation is a result of both association and dissociation, so that both conflict and cooperation serve a social function. Some certain degree of conflict is an essential element in group formation. Coser further discusses how conflict serves the function of establishing and maintaining group identities. Reciprocal antagonisms between groups preserve social divisions and systems of stratification.

These reciprocal “repulsions” both establish the identity of the various groups within the system and also help to maintain the overall social system. The distinction between one’s own group and “outsiders” is established in and through conflict. This includes conflicts between classes, nations, ethnic groups, and political parties. In social structures where there is a substantial amount of mobility, the mutual hostility among groups is accompanied by the lower strata’s attraction to the higher strata. Such structures tend to provide many occasions for conflict.

Coser further describes some positive functions served by the expression of hostility in conflict. Conflict “clears the air” and allows for the free behavioural expression of hostile dispositions. This might be thought of as a “safety-valve theory” of conflict, according to which conflict serves as an outlet for hostilities so that relationships between antagonists can be transformed or maintained. Also, while conflict changes the terms of social interaction, mere expression of hostile feelings does not. Though hostility is expressed, the relationship as such remains unchanged. Pressure to modify the system to meet changing conditions is reduced. Hostile impulses do not suffice to account for social conflict, and not every conflict is
accompanied by aggressiveness. Conflict simply presupposes a relationship and social interaction.

In fact, conflict can be constructive and can be used creatively, in many instances; it is fundamental to social change.

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